The Curtis house – textured cube

A TIGHT SITE AND SEMI-INDUSTRIAL environment contained many clues and some constraints for this new house and studio, which received an Award of Merit in this year’s Victorian Chapter RAIA Awards. Wood / Marsh looked to the large blank faces of Richmond’s warehouses when considering the street presence. Yet, although the facade is decidedly urban, decidedly non-domestic, the aspect the house/studio presents to the street is an enriched one. The blank wall is faced with split-face blockwork in three shades: off-white, pewter and bluestone. Each material occupies a particular plane, rendering the pattern as a thick, three-dimensional surface. The apparently random texture is punctuated by steel window frames, slicing through this dense surface and projecting beyond.

The complexity of this decorated surface might allude to the elaborate ironwork of small Victorian cottages (the building’s other neighbours), or to Melbourne’s polychrome brick history, but it is also reminiscent of Wood / Marsh’s rather more monumental concrete work on the Eastern Freeway. Like those walls, the textured front of the Curtis house involves perceptual tricks. Where the patterning of the freeway harriers appears to shift and change as one drives past at speed, this smaller wall in a dense urban setting plays vertical games. The block and opening patterns increase in scale as they move up the building, confounding the sense of height and perspective from the narrow street. The patterning, however, was generated from a rather more domestic source — the chunky knit of a Missoni swearer.

The confined site led to a strongly internalised cubic volume encased by apparently massive walls. The internal effect of solidity and depth is enhanced by interior blockwork and deep window reveals. The steel window frames jut into the interior, presenting the overtly framed views as additional pieces of realist art.

The “textured cube” is also pierced vertically, bringing light deep into the enclosed volume. Dappled light from the green perforated stair permeates the centre, while an internal courtyard pulls air and light into the rear, creating a second visual link through the depth of the building.

The stair acts as a major ordering element within the simple and direct plan organisation. Darker, lower level spaces are occupied by garaging, storage and a photographic darkroom, studio and office. Bedrooms are located in the middle, while the upper, lighter floor accommodates the kitchen and living spaces. The kitchen opens out to a wide timber deck with rooftop views, providing a release from the otherwise insistent interiority.

These straightforward, robust spaces and surfaces are enlivened by a wonderful collection of visual art and furniture from the 60s and 70s. These aesthetics have subtly affected the architecture. Indeed, the furnishing of tough architectural surfaces with rich interior objects is itself a characteristic of 60s domestic Brutalism. Other references appear in quotation marks. For example, level changes in the living area create a version of the 70s conversation pit — but the white shagpile is confined to a carefully centred rug.

Between Richmond’s industrial environment and the clients’ collection of Twentieth Century visual culture, Wood / Marsh have inserted a rugged cube. The skillful interpretation of these very particular circumstances has resulted in an inventive urban house.

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